Careers in Science Communication

By Meghan Dovick, Danielle Endres, and Doug Tolman

This week, Peaks and Valleys speaks with two U of U faculty and one MFA candidate on the fascinating career field of science communication.

Meghan Dovick, Ph.D., is the Director of the Professional Master’s of Science and Technology program (PMST) at the University of Utah

Danielle Endres, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah

Doug Tolman is the creator of A Living Lab, an ArcGIS StoryMap about Great Salt Lake wetlands restoration, and a Master’s of Fine Arts candidate in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Utah

Peaks and Valleys:  Why is science communication important?

Meghan:    If we cannot communicate what the data show, we cannot make change. By being better communicators, we can have a broader reach, a more significant impact, and, hopefully, better results. The results can be better policy, behavioral change, and a common language among all people. That’s what being a good science communicator can lead to.

 Every scientist is a communicator, whether you’re a geologist studying the Great Salt Lake, an atmospheric scientist looking at air pollution, or a biologist trying to understand ecological functions better. To be able to explain why your data is necessary to both colleagues and nonscientists is a skill every scientist needs to have. In our PMST program, first-year students often push back on the required policy, communication, and project management coursework and say, “I don’t need this; I’ll never engage with the public.” It is not until later, and they have had real-world experience, that they come back and say, “actually, a large part of my job is communicating and engaging with nonscientists.” 

Peaks and Valleys:  Meghan, what is the Professional Master of Science and Technology degree program (PMST)?  What kinds of careers do your students pursue?  

The PMST program is a graduate science degree program [M.S.] that allows scientists to advance their technical skills in their field of expertise but also focus on workforce preparedness skills such as business, project management, and effective communication. Scientists are often labeled as poor communicators, relationship builders, conflict managers, and project managers. We are trained to value being objective and data-driven over being trained in effective communication. The PMST graduate program helps fill that niche. We prioritize ensuring our scientists are ready to go out and be influential leaders, agents of change, and impactful communicators. We are addressing the fact that nobody is talking to each other. We are creating the next generation of workforce scientists who speak to broad audiences, CEOs, and community decision-makers.

 The PMST has focus tracks in biotechnology, computational and data science, earth resource management, environmental science, and science instrumentation. To give a few career outcome examples, environmental science graduates often work for state agencies, like the Utah Division of Water Quality, a lot in the nonprofit sector, and environmental consulting in the private sector. Recently, we had a student who is now the sustainability manager for Swire Coca-Cola and who communicates science and sustainability issues to substantial stakeholders and nonscientists.

People on the biotechnology track often want to move from lab bench to project manager. For example, we had a COVID test developer who can now lead teams on how to evolve that testing and evolve that business operation because they can bridge the science and the business.

Students in the data science track go into cybersecurity, machine learning, AI, finance, and big data. We’re finding that data science is having its day. You can have data scientists in every one of the science fields now because the application of data is so varied and has so many technological advancement opportunities. 

Peaks and Valleys:  How can we learn to communicate science effectively?

Meghan:  Storytelling is a great way to communicate science. When scientists present data, we know that most people lack a real-world relationship to that data. People are more motivated to act when you connect using a narrative, an emotional or personal connection. Practice speaking to people outside of your discipline. The more you get in front of people who don’t know your work or research, the better you can deliver your message and inspire people to your passion for science. Researchers will talk for days about their work, but if you can’t communicate its more significant meaning, it goes nowhere. 

Danielle:  Here is a list of great resources to enhance your science communication knowledge:

Peaks and Valleys:  Doug, what motivated you to study with the PMST program to advance your work as an artist?

As an artist who makes work in, around, and about The Great Salt Lake, I took an Environmental Field Methods course with Meghan to spend more time around the lake with scientists, while also contributing to ecological solutions. Additionally, I intended to use my skill set as a visual communicator to make data and information more accessible to people who might not have a science background. The concept for my ArcGIS StoryMap, A Living Lab, came about as a great middle-ground, where I could contribute visual language while also deepening my understanding of mapping, water data, and the history of Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve. 

Peaks and Valleys:  How can readers become more scientifically literate?  

Meghan:  Start with popular science articles. Publications like Scientific American and Nature are written for a general audience and are easily accessible. Find your science passion, like climate change, for example: once you find your scientific love, it will be easier to become more literate in that area. Be bold and ask questions. Curiosity is at the root of all science.

Finally, get your information from a wealth of sources. Try only to form an opinion once you gather news from various references. In the age of misinformation, it’s essential for everyone, not just scientists, to question, “What’s the source? Is it credible? How do you know? Where’s the evidence?” Everyone can ask questions; therefore, everyone is a bit of a scientist. 

Peaks and Valleys:  Can you have a career in science communication without a science degree?

Danielle:  The key is that one cannot do science communication without an excellent foundation in science education and knowledge. This can be one of the problems with science journalism—folks get put on the science beat with little training and then they default to old journalism patterns like “every issue has two sides.”

I would say one can work in science communication without a science degree, but they need to have a strong interest in and background in science. A person would need to have a good understanding of the science topics they would communicate, so they need enough background to be able to understand the concepts and they need enough understanding of the scientific method to be able to learn more about topics. It is also helpful to be able to read and understand science journal articles. I would recommend that students at the U who are not science majors but are considering a career in science communication take science classes and perhaps do some work in a lab.